Singers back on stage, but current unrest may threaten planned shows

With COVID-19 under control, Israeli promoters started booking, but Gaza conflict may scare off audiences and artists

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Singer Miri Mesika performed at the first of nine concerts at Acre's Metzuda stage, prior to the recent unrest and riots disrupting the northern city (Courtesy City of Acre)
Singer Miri Mesika performed at the first of nine concerts at Acre's Metzuda stage, prior to the recent unrest and riots disrupting the northern city (Courtesy City of Acre)

It was just a week ago that Israeli singer Miri Mesika stood on the stage of the Crusader-era citadel in Acre and performed for the first time in months, under a starry sky, for an audience of hundreds.

“She went crazy for it,” said Lizu Ohayon, who manages the performance space. “Every singer knows what the citadel is and they love it.”

Now, a week later, as riots among Arabs and Jews have spread to Acre, the ancient port city known for its Jewish-Arab population, the citadel is shuttered, and the next planned performance, a May 20 show with singer Idan Amedi, is postponed for now.

“We’re talking about an event that is serious and unusual,” said Ohayon of the rioting and unrest. “These are situations that don’t represent the spirit of coexistence in Acre.”

The citadel, one of several Old City sites renovated by the Acre municipality over the last few years, has been left alone during the last few nights of violence. Other well-known Acre spots, including the famed Uri Buri fish restaurant, owned by Uri Jeremias, and his nearby Effendi boutique hotel, were torched by rioters. Jeremias, a Jew who has been in Acre’s Old City for the last 20 years, has always looked at his businesses as examples of coexistence.

Uri Jeremias, the beloved proprietor of fish restaurant Uri Buri in Acre, which was torched by mobs on May 11, 2021 during a night of violence in the northern city (Courtesy Uri Buri Facebook page)

“The damage is great, but I’m not angry; anger inhibits,” Jeremias told a local radio program. “We will renovate and reopen. Nothing will break me.”

Ditto for Ohayon, who is full of hope and the belief that the citadel will continue to be used by Acre residents and “every type” of Israeli, despite the events of the last few days.

The Crusader castle’s courtyard, located in the heart of the Old City was renovated two years ago, prior to COVID-19, as promoters looked for an entertainment space in Acre and the western Galilee. The municipality also subsidizes tickets, keeping prices down to about NIS 99 (about $28) per ticket, in order to draw in more audience members.

“People want this kind of scene outside,” said Ohayon. “Your soul is captured by this setting, under the sky.”

Nearly all 800 seats for the Idan Amedi May 20 concert were taken, while Yishai Ribo is sold out on June 17, with only a smattering of tickets available for most of the eight other concerts scheduled throughout the summer.

Sitting room only among the 800 seats at Acre’s Metzuda, a Crusader-era citadel that was turned into an entertainment space by the municipality (Courtesy City of Acre)

Still, it’s hard to know what this summer will bring, following the lengthy pandemic that shuttered most cultural events and now the unrest that has sent people back into their homes, sealed rooms and shelters.

Events featuring local Israeli artists may be postponed. As for international performers, it’s tough to know how they’ll react to the recent headlines.

“We live in Israel so we are really used to having a lot of problems with artists,” said promoter Guy Dreifuss.”Many don’t want to come for political reasons, or if there’s something like missiles, but I respect every decision.”

Dreifuss began planning the annual DGTL (digital) electronic music festival, scheduled for September 21, two weeks ago, when coronavirus capacity limitations were lifted for larger events.

The last DGTL electronic music festival in Israel, in 2019; the festival organizers hope to pull off their planned September 21, 2021 event (Courtesy DGTL)

He’s not worried about a lack of Israeli audience members for this festival, which usually draws some 20,000 people.

Israel is often a favorite destination for performers because it’s “a very small place but we’re very strong for live music and electronic music,” said Dreifuss.

This week, however, he’s worried about the current unrest rumbling throughout Israel, and whether that will affect the DJs and performers he booked for DGTL. While some may end up canceling for political reasons, or book and then cancel when pressured by other artists, all were happy to get the booking as most haven’t worked much in the last year.

“What can I say, Israel is a very fun place to do events,” said Dreifuss, with a slight snort.

For now, it’s only Israeli performers booked for outdoor amphitheaters as well as indoor stages and spaces this summer. With strict coronavirus guidelines still in place for entering tourists, it will be a few more months before international performers are seen on Israeli stages.

“I think we’ll see B-list and A-,” said Carmi Wurtman, a concert promoter whose 2B Vibes company produces concerts and music festivals around Israel. “We don’t always get A+ anyway, so it’s not too bad.”

Canadian crooner Celine Dion and rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers were both scheduled to perform in Israel in 2020 and then pushed their dates to 2021. Dion then rescheduled her two planned Tel Aviv concerts to one performance in May 2023, while Red Hot Chili Peppers has remained silent as to future plans.

Carmi Wurtman (right) at the 2018 Sunbeat Festival in Ashram BaNegev (Courtesy Carmi Wurtman)

Wurtman lined up American singer Laura Pergolizzi, known as LP, who will perform in Ra’anana Park in September 2021, a date postponed from 2020.

He also moved it from its original location at the Caesarea amphitheater to the larger outdoor park in Ra’anana, where he expects it to be full capacity.

Wurtman is hoping to announce more shows, and is currently negotiating with several other artists.

“We’re pushing Israel, because we have a certain edge now,” said Wurtman, referring to the country’s high vaccination rate.

That advantage lasted until this week, as the latest barrage of rockets and unrest between Israel and the Palestinians unfurled. Until then, Wurtman’s only concern was whether COVID-19 would keep audiences away.

He had already added “five more pages” of COVID-19-related clauses to each artist contract.

“It’s another tier of triple jeopardy, with the security situation and BDS and now COVID,” said Wurtman. “Our goals were to try and get a few shows this year. I think fans in Israel need it. I went to my first concert last week and I was in heaven as a fan.”

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